Sunday, January 31, 2010

Not Now.

Maintenant is the rather jaunty name of this new album from a band (term used very loosely here, since I count approx. forty “members”) operating out of Vancouver, B.C., name of Gigi.

The joke here being that mainentant is French for “now,” while the whole idea was actually to make the music sound like “then.”

“Then” in this instance meaning early 1960’s pop musique à la Phil Spector & cetera, that kind of thing. So, among the first things you’ll notice is the pervasive & distinctive giant-room echo, & then the spiffy vintage girl-group-style harmonies directly out of the Shangri-Las or the Ronettes or what have you, & of course the brass accompaniment whose verb tense is decidedly past conditional, sounding not so much like any music anybody makes today.

It’s a fun experiment, done pretty much straight up & w/out irony. Unless you count the perpetual dissonance between the sunny, perky demeanor of the vocals versus the bleak, existential darkness of the lyrics. e.g., the words are constantly along the lines of “In love w/no one & no one in love w/me,” & "crying my eyes out for the 100th time," yet you can actually hear the grinning in the singers’ delivery.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The More Things Change.

The new Spoon album has been out for several days now, & so probably I needn’t point out how good it is. I’m just going to have to assume you’ve heard it by now. Can we first agree on the following? That the songs are peppy, are poppy; that the sound is as meticulously & lovingly crafted as on any of Spoon’s numerous past albums. Would you also agree with me that, despite its consonance with prior work, Transference has a sound & feel all its own, & that “new” & “surprising” are among its apt descriptors?

So, the new Spoon record is the same & it’s different, I guess that’s my thesis.

Maybe the key is Britt’s voice, which has always carried a certain rawness even as, on balance, the music was pretty slick & pretty smooth. When I think of Spoon, I think quintessentially of the Girls Can Tell album (great title, btw), where there’s a constant sort of tension between the sheen of the production versus the grit in Britt’s voice.

“Grit,” now is a more prominent flavor on the new album than on previous ones. Rough, Raw, & Brash are other adjectives that came to mind on my first listen. (Oh, also: Chunky.) So there’s a new, rougher edge to this music that nonetheless fits seamlessly with the rasp that has always characterized the singing.

OK, but it’s still a Spoon record & so: meticulous attention to detail continues to define all sounds & all combinations of sounds. Nothing is permitted to be haphazard, even as a lot of reference is made here to a slapdash approach. Notice all those parts that seem, randomly, to just peter out or cut off abruptly, even at the expense of completing a chord change, or a lyric. Notice the deliberately graceless segues, into silence or into the next sound, the next song. It’s an interesting strategy, this feigned clumsiness in a work that was so clearly labored over, so plainly perfected. Overall, the impression is of a work that’s bursting with novel ideas, and tripping over itself (interrupting itself) in the service of just getting them all OUT goddammit.

It’s an exciting listen, it’s very fun. &, not incidentally, the whole thing just sounds delicious. One nugget among many that has my attention is how, in “The Mystery Zone,” the slow-decay echo on the guitar chords counterpoints the spunky bass line, whose sound is sharp, immaculate, & satisfyingly fat. The juxtaposition between those two instruments (& between their respective sound-textures) is incongruous, hence compelling to the ear.

Spoon-Mystery Zone mp3

Now, I realize that most people would regard this as a tangential point, but when I talk about how recorded music is now generally explicit in emphasizing its own artifice, this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Obviously, there are no samples, loops, & cetera on this album, this here is not a disco thing or a techno thing or hiphop or whatever. It’s not an Experimental recording in any kind of overt way. This is (“just”) the new album by Spoon, which as we know is (“just”) a four-piece, straight-up rock band. (With, now, a fantastic bass player, it bears mentioning.)

& yet, repeatedly & emphatically all over this collection, the point is made that these are studio recordings, constructed piecemeal from disparate components. Some bits are apparent leftovers from the original demos, & are then combined with the slicked-up “professional” parts. So, a particular rhythm guitar part might sound like it was, e.g., recorded on an answering machine in the bathroom –all tinny & flat & faraway. & then that’s juxtaposed with, e.g., a close-miked drum part whose sound is processed rich & full & all state-of-the-arty. I’ve described elsewhere how musical & dramatic impact can derive from the combination of sounds that could not have existed together in the real, physical world. Transference is just a great illustration of this; frequently & expertly on this album, sounds that plainly don’t belong together are combined & provoked into making music with each other.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yes. (Breathe)

Don’t be scared.

YO-Don't Worry Kyoko mp3

Just go ahead & press play on this link. Hear some of it while you read. This is, first-off, a cultural artifact. 1969 in Toronto. At, somewhat incongruously, some sort of rock&roll “revival” event. The guitar players are Eric Clapton & John Lennon. The banshee-squealing is by (who else?) Yoko Ono. Maybe you’ve heard this before & maybe you haven’t. Either way, you probably come to this with a whole a lot of preconceptions, right? Try, please, to forget them for a minute, & just hear.

A couple of pedestrian observations, right off the bat:

1. You’ll wait in vain here for a chorus, bridge, or other meaningful variation of the riff. I submit that the arrangement is, functionally, a Loop. A proto-sample, even. I think that’s interesting, historically speaking.

2. Yoko is not tentative, not hesitant, not even slightly deferential to the heavy hitters on stage with her. She is confident. Shit, she’s ferocious! Her performance is not haphazard; she very clearly knows what she’s doing.

So, but this is some weird shit, yes? The full title of the song is actually “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” I daresay that nobody in 1969 in Toronto had ever heard anything like this before. But now it’s forty-plus years later. & I think we ought to not be quite so taken aback. I mean, how many different flavors of weird have we enjoyed, even wholeheartedly endorsed, since then? We have long ago processed & assimilated, e.g, Kate Pierson. & Lene Lovich. Nina Hagen. Kathleen Hanna. & cetera. I mean, now, we have Molly Siegel, now we have Satomi Matsuzaki. Shit, now we got Karen O. I could go on the list is so long, but my point being: Just the bare fact of Yoko Ono ululating & shrieking & Oh, it’s not pretty & it’s not polite & it’s not very nice should no longer give us pause. I mean, right? We should be able to just hear it.

& yet: Yoko & co are coming to town next month & I have been delivering that news to WOW quite a mixed bag of reactions from the people I know. What exactly is it about Yoko that can still spark such reflexive aversion? Such rancor, even? I merely pose the question; it’s not something I’m going to try to explain.

Anyway, Ms. Ono does what she does. She’s an experimental artist, & she expects you to do your share of the thinking. She’s not necessarily going to just feed it to you. She provokes. She works in a very wide variety of media, & right now evidently she’s working once again in music. She’s got a new album out, called Between My Head and the Sky. When it succeeds, it’s really kind of a thrill:

YO-Waiting for the D Train

As with any mad scientist, not every experiment of hers is a successful one. I won’t lie: There are some songs here that are campy in a way that is, I’m sorry, totally unintentional. Wince. But I have a lot of respect for the reaching, the naked risk-taking. & I just have nothing but affection for the unshirking & well-earned positivism that lies at the heart of all Yoko’s work. This is somebody who has faced the fucking heart of darkness more than once. Yet, what is her ultimate message? It’s pure & it’s sublime, it’s: Yes.

It’s: War is Over, qualified by nothing other than If You Want It.

Anyway, the new album: Yoko once again shares the stage w/some heavy hitters (including Sean Lennon), albeit this time maybe not the best-known ones around. One reason I personally am excited to see Yoko Ono is that Yuka Honda is in the band.

Yuka Honda was, once upon a time, ½ of Cibo Matto. Do you remember their first album, Viva! La Woman? That was some seriously brilliant shit, & it made a significant splash back in, uh, nineteen ninety-freaking-SIX (jesus). OK, I’ll just go ahead & assume for the sake of discussion that you don’t remember that one, so here’s a kind of a Whitman’s Sampler of Cibo Matto for you:

Fun, right? See, that’s the thing that I now think: shit has to be fun. It’s experimental OK but it doesn’t have to be like taking your medicine all the time. People want to impose every damn kind of hierarchy on the music of the world. The older I get, here’s the one question I want answered correctly: Am I having fun when I hear it?

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band are playing the Fox in Oakland on Feb 23. It's exciting to me that I have no clear idea of what to expect. This is yet another episode of the SF Noise Pop fest. & just to put a cherry on top of the whole deal, Deerhoof is opening!


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Love / Loveless

It’s been almost twenty actual years since My Bloody Valentine, virtually appearing from nowhere, re-in-fucking-vented music with their album Loveless (1991), & then more or less just disappeared. Leaving all subsequent tomb raiders the task of sifting through the ashes & sand, the fossils & the pottery shards.

Have you taken the time to hear this anytime lately? Here, cancel all your commitments for the next five & one-half minutes. You owe it to yourself:

MBV-What You Want

It’s beautiful when a brilliant idea can be expressed very simply. To my ears, what Kevin Shields & co did here was to start with the big-room reverb & distortion combination that had sonically defined the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy (5 or 6 years earlier, already by then an artifact in pop-culture’s merciless time zone), and thicken it. Uh, densify it. With multiple uberdubs, redundant microphone strategies, and a bunch of obscure & cryptic samples. Every last speck of potential silence is filled here: talk about yer Wall of Sound, this shit is monolithic. There are other ingredients here (Bilinda Butcher’s breathy vocals key among them), but the density of the guitar noise is what defines this album, & defines the countless (countless, I say!) subsequent instances of its influence. There have been an awful lot of wanna-be MBVs out there since 1991.

In the song above, I have always loved the way it comes to a halt at ~4:20, as if it had just sprinted a mile & so then needs to stand still panting for air for another full-plus minute. Except that the standstill-panting part is actually a rather handsome little tapestry of its own. Woven from a couple layers of, I think, a single processed sample of a flute. & now, nineteen-plus years later, I remain on the verge of identifying the source of that sample. [Other samples on this album I got. I recognize that “Blown a Wish” uses “Cherish” by the Association, circa 1966. I know that “Touched” lifts straight up from Adrian Belew’s 1st solo album Lone Rhino, 1982. I still can’t quite put my finger on the What You Want sample, though. Anybody know it?] So, thousands of listens later, Loveless retains for me some mystery.

Anyway nowadays MBV is canonical, & we don’t so much get all excited about it any more. However much we may love Loveless, it’s Old News.

Continuing over to Aisle Two where we have New News, you’re still likely to find inter alia Deerhunter (merciless time zone notwithstanding). Microcastle has been out since Halloween 2008, & I have taken the opportunity to hear it frequently & to listen deeply to it. Early in that process, I recognized that, yes quite obviously, Bradford Cox is well-acquainted with MBV. [This is in no means intended as derogatory toward Mr. Cox, whom I regard as one of very few actual geniuses working in the realm of “popular” music today.]

Any number of Bradford & co’s songs in Deerhunter & in Atlas Sound carry what I perceive as an obvious flavor of MBV, of J&M Chain, & (not the slightest bit incidentally) of Velvet Underground. This is just one of the musical traditions in which Bradford innovates, & upon which Bradford implicitly comments in his own work.

So, even after having recognized the quote-unquote influence at work there, I was still startled one day to wonder if Deerhunter’s “Neither of Us, Uncertainly” was actually, secretly a cover of MBV’s “What You Want.” & the surprising & incongruous thing that made me wonder that was actually the uncanny similarity between the respective codas of each song. Because “Neither of Us, Uncertainly” also has a standstill-panting part that really sounds a lot (a LOT) like the end of the MBV song. Hear:

DH-Neither of Us, Uncertainly mp3

Isn’t that just kind of cool? I mean, on further listening OK, one song is very clearly not a cover of the other. While the two definitely share (at minimum) a textural approach to the guitar sound, the DH song is just in a whole other realm rhythmically. The MBV is in lockstep 4/4, while DH is actually waltzing (listen, count it!) in threes. So there’s that very fundamental distinction. But the ending bit is, despite different instrumentation, so similar that I now can’t hear it as anything other than a clear & enthusiastic shout-out. Bradford & co giving props to them what went before.

Incidentally, Bradford & Atlas Sound are coming back to town even though they were just here. I don’t think I can stand to miss it.